An actor, writer, performer, showrunner, and podcaster, Kulap Vilaysack is a powerhouse in the comedy world. After countless guest appearances on everything from The Office to Bob’s Burgers to Parks and Recreation, she’s the creator and showrunner of the reality show sendup Bajillion Dollar Propertie$. Available on the online comedy network SeeSo, she spoofs the world of high-dollar real estate in Los Angeles with a semi-scripted format, relying on the improv skills of her ensemble cast and an impressive roster of guest stars.
She chatted with us during the ATX TV Fest about how she got started making a living in comedy, and what it’s like to run a show in the rapidly changing TV landscape.
What was it that drew you to a career in comedy?
I think I had a somewhat different childhood and I think laughing and comedy was the release valve, in an often high-pressure situation. I remember going to theaters with my parents. They’re both Lao immigrants, and we went and saw Coming to America, and my mom had a Thai restaurant in Minneapolis, and while I was an eight year old dishwasher, and food prepper. There would be a TV in the restaurant while I was veining shrimp and cutting snap peas, and we’d be watching The Cosby Show, Saturday Night Live. A lot of TV during food prepping, so it was a big part of my life growing up.
But I never thought that I could make a living at it. And I grew up in Minnesota, graduated from high school, and then came out to California to go the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. That’s a two year program. About six months in, and I was like, “This isn’t quite right.”
And then two years into being in LA, started going to Second City Los Angeles to do classes there, then that led to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, and then I started performing there. I had a show at this place called El Cid, called garage comedy that I had every week and, then it was The Office.
You have a natural proclivity to it. Obviously there’s a lot of drive to get you there, but it seems to have stuck.
I had this great high school teacher named Mr. Kim Whitman, and I used to be really afraid of speaking in front of people. He saw something in me and got me to do Speech and humorous interpretation. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Speech.
Okay. So, Mr. Kim put me in one of his plays, I was the comedic relief, so I think maybe he saw something, at the time, I didn’t see. He definitely started it off, really, the thought, maybe of possibly performing. Or even that I was funny.
What led to you creating Bajillion Dollar Propertie$?
I really like HGTV. It’s something I can just turn my brain off. I like going to open houses. Before we found a house and was looking for house, I would go to open houses and check it out to see how people live. And the aspirational qualities of it too. Clearly I can’t afford this house, but I’m in here and I’m looking.
You can go through drawers, that’s a big part of it.
And so, I have a love of that. I’ve been [on] Children’s Hospital a few times. I did Hot Wives, I was Burning Love. I was like, well what if it’s in the scope [could we be] doing it in the world of million dollar listing? What would that look like?
And the thing is, I’m not making fun of it because it is entertainment, the million dollar listing, you know. Even though it’s so heightened, it’s a heightened realism found it’s a perfect environment for funny people to be funny because there’s a thing that I want.
I want to buy this house. Right? And then there can be so many variations on that. I need something from you, which is a great way to drive a scene.
It seems like it’s a little bit of heightened reality, but it seems like it doesn’t have to be that far removed, the line between parody and reality seems to really blur. Granted, I’ve never spent any time in L.A.
Yeah, I know. And I also feel like I would say parody, but I also prefer the word “spoof,” even though it’s so similar just because there’s nobody really based on anybody. I know exactly what you’re saying, like the real estate part of it, too is just really like a Trojan Horse, so that funny people can be funny.
And we can find different variations of that. There’s people who are just ridiculously rich who have huge egos, and they have to either lean on it or have to change it so that they can sell a house, or our guest stars coming and they can just go nuts.
And to your point, L.A. people are very nuts.
How did you assemble the cast?
In the first conception, I’ve known Paul Tompkins since I was 19 years old. I’m 37 now. I’m a huge fan of Paul’s. I think he’s an amazing stand up, I think he’s a great actor, I just, I love the man and I always thought that the head of the company would be Paul.
So Paul didn’t have to audition. He’s not only an amazing stand up performer, he’s an amazing actor. Everybody else went through an audition process. We have an amazing casting director and she put auditions together, and basically the first audition was ‘here’s couple scenarios, prepare one, and then it would just be in front of a camera with the casting director, playing the other side of it.’
And it’s improvised, so had the scenario and they were just going to go with it. And so I would watch, she would show me her selects. I would pick people like ‘Ooh, who do I want to come back for callbacks?’ Callbacks would be with me, improvising basically.
Different scenarios, maybe we would do two things. Tell me what you would do, premise of we’re both realtors and you suspect that I defaced your building? Or, you know, I stole your client. And then we would improv, because the show is semi-scripted.
And with a cast like this, I suppose you’d want to lean on those strength.
How do you get this amazing roster of guest stars?
They’re all my friends [Laughs]. There are very few in our hundreds of guest stars that I do not know personally. Or, Scott [Aukerman] doesn’t know personally, or very, very few. I’m trying to think… I didn’t know Alicia Silverstone prior. I trying to think of other people that were pulled in.
Well, then you get people like Steven Yeun, who spent so much time on The Walking Dead that you don’t really associate him with comedy.
And Steven Yeun I knew through my head writer at the time, Brad Morris. And a lot of people knew Stephen, and where Brad knew him from was Second City in Chicago.
And Tawny [Newsome] knew him, because she’s Second City Chicago mainstay and so is Tim Baltz. And so was Brad Morris, so that’s why these comedy connections, but they’re not direct to me.
There’s also this notion that with a big, ensemble cast, you end up rooting for certain characters. You can take sides a little bit. Is that the intent?
I mean, I wanted people with all their flaws. They’re desires are very relatable. They have daddy issues. They want to be loved. They want to be respected. They are very vulnerable. What I didn’t want is it to just be a bunch of people who didn’t care. These people, their problem is they care too deeply, and they care about the wrong things.
And when somebody tries to reach out, they miss it. You know? To me, which I think is very relatable in this sort of high pressure, cartoonish world.
You do feel like, when someone blows a sale, for instance, you feel for that character even in this very cartoonish circumstances.
Yeah, the bros love each other and Victoria is in love in the most wrong way with Dean. She can’t see that. Glen loves everybody. There’s still love there, and that to me can be really funny, and make me really sad with it. And I think it’s funnier when we can go there.
It’s this mix of they’re all on the same team, but they’re all against each other at the same time.
And Paul F. Tompkins plays the perfect…
Very much so.
Yeah, I hope that it feels like [that] as dysfunctional as they are, they are a type of family.
It’s very relatable. Of course, I don’t think there’s such a thing as a ‘functional’ family.
I don’t live in one. I’ve not known another way.
Yeah. Maybe the Mormons, I don’t know.
Right? They figured it out.
So, it’s a semi-scripted format, but you’ve got this overarching season-wide story arcs. How much more do you have in your head before you run out of ideas?
Oh, I think it could go on forever. We have season arcs, we have character arcs, but then we have plots and multiple plots and stories that I, during post, put everything together. And the way our scripts work, we have the premise, we have the heightened beats, so that the improvisers have a roadmap and sign post to go to. We have dialogue that they can choose to use or not use, and we have an end.
So really, it’s such a collaborative process because a lot of people use those lines, a lot of people go off, we get brilliance we haven’t even thought of in the moment.
And then I have to it all together in post, and so, aside from the premier and the finale, I basically am story editing it, and I maybe see the first cut and go that story doesn’t work, I pull it out. It’s very modular. So, I basically have half a season additional material that I’ve already shown, so this is something that could go on for as long as there was an appetite for it.
So, if something gets pulled out of one scene, or even an entire season, does that get shelved and set aside for use later?
Oh, Steve Yeun. We brought up Steve Yuen. That was shot Season One.
Really? That’s interesting.
Yeah, that was shot [and] I didn’t have the space for it, and because I’m always looking to balance the cast, I’m always looking at thematics, how to put episodes together. Sometimes things don’t end up in an episode or in season simply because there just isn’t room. I only have a finite number of episodes per season. So, yeah, [Steve Yeun’s] bit, that was from Season One.
And I have so much. I could make, easily make half a season, because what happens is I have those confessionals, the talking heads, and that makes everything together.
How is it working with Seeso?
They’re really hands off. They’ve been great partners. I’ve gotten to create in a really supportive and safe environment. I know it’s very minimal, they love the show.
How is it creating something like this in an online format, which is still relatively new, at least in the scope of TV history? Having an entire season ready to drop at once, ready to consume?
It’s interesting, because Season One was [week to week], and then Season Two was… what’s the term?
I don’t really know. Binge-ready, maybe?
Yeah, all at the same time.
Maybe a season drop?
Yeah, so it was full season drop on season two and a full season drop on three.
That’s how I consume… well, that’s not fair. [I watch] Jane the Virgin [on] the CW app. Or I’ll go through Chewing Gum season two. That’s what I’m doing right now. I’m tired from editing, so I’m going to watch another show. To me, that’s just how it is.
It’s getting to be the norm, for sure.
And it’s just how it is that I’m like ‘Alright, I want to see something. Alright, well what’s on the DVR? Nah, I don’t feel like that. Okay, well I’ll use the Apple TV to get into Netflix, but you know what I need to see something on Amazon,’ so I’ll go on the Roku, and then I’ll go through Roku, and then I’ll watch Catastrophe on Amazon.
‘No, you know what, I want to go back.’ You know what I mean? It’s just so crazy that I have so many different choices.
I know it very well.
And so many apps, but that’s what, you know? I have this brain center in my living room.
I’m trying to think of what I watch on a weekly basis. Silicon Valley? But even then it will build up to at least three. I can’t think of something that I’m like ‘Yes, I’m must!’ I’m loving American Gods, but we’ll build to two or three.
There are so many choices right now.
So many choices. There’s too much, but I’m very happy with my choices.
Does all this variety make being a show runner any more daunting a task?
To me it’s so exciting. I think that this project is made for [this environment]. I can go up to 26 minutes. I can say all the swears. In terms of notes and content, I’ve rarely been told ‘No.’ That type of creative freedom is so awesome, and as I move forward in my career, I know that I’ll look back at this time and go, ‘Man, that was, like, the best.’
Bajillion Dollar Properties is available to stream via SeeSo.